RSC’s ”A Christmas Carol” starring Adrian Edmondson – review

Adrian Edmondson in A Christmas Carol
Adrian Edmondson in A Christmas Carol
© Manuel Harlan

With arts funding under increasing threat and audiences increasingly wary about spending money in the run-up to an uncertain Christmas, it’s easy to understand the RSC’s decision to fall back on a bankable success in the shape of David Edgar’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s worked twice for them before, in 2017 and 2018, and this time out has the added bankability of Adrian Edmondson playing Scrooge. Rumour has it that ticket sales saw a big spike on his announcement in the role.

But any suggestion that this means the company is playing safe should be immediately dismissed: Edgar’s fiercely socialist script, given full rein in Rachel Kavanaugh’s fresh revival, strikes a strident and uncompromising note of defiance against a society seemingly determined to foster and demonise an underclass at precisely the moment its constituents most need protecting. Like the framing device of Charles Dickens himself attempting to highlight the evils of social injustice through a story, Edgar is unapologetically political.

His tweaks since the last iteration have only added power and resonance at a time when Want and Ignorance – the two qualities personified as children in Dickens’s narrative – are painfully prevalent. I suspect the Victorian author would have been as approving of the adaptation as he would have been scathing about the continued present-day need for it.

Edgar’s dramatic prowess is just the start. Under Kavanaugh’s secure hand, a huge cast has the stage teeming with life and, in true Dickensian fashion, characters. No matter how small the role, everyone earns his or her place in the overall texture, and it’s a tribute to the entire ensemble that there are no weak links. Besides Edmondson – more on him in a moment – standout performances include Sunetra Sarker and Rebecca Lacey as two of the spirits of Christmas, and a wonderfully cheery turn from Clive Hayward as Mr Fezziweg. But there are equally strong characterisations from Gavin Fowler as Dickens, Giles Taylor as Jacob Marley, Mitesh Soni as Bob Cratchit, Emma Pallant as Mrs Cratchit… the list goes on.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is as evocative as ever, ranging from warm firesides to chilling slums, while Catherine Jayes’s music provides a suitably atmospheric underscore, whether it’s accompanying a festive party or a terrifying ghost. Likewise, lighting (Tim Mitchell) and illusions (Ben Hart) are judiciously deployed to terrific effect, and the whole production runs like a well-oiled machine.

As for Edmondson, at different moments there are echoes of past incarnations as Vivien in The Young Ones, Eddie in Bottom and even Malvolio in a memorable Twelfth Night in Stratford, but in the end he imbues Ebenezer Scrooge with a nicely balanced blend of anti-festive humbug and childlike ebullience in his before-and-after versions. His acting skills are well up to the job of serving as a linchpin, and he finds exactly the right amount of comedy in both aspects of his character’s persona.

We may still be in early November, but as a curtain-raiser for the festive season, this Christmas Carol still packs a hefty punch.